A local politician has a bucket of faeces emptied over his head by a rival he has attempted to smear… An enemy soldier is tied to a lamppost and subjected to foul abuse by passers-by… A “terrorist attack” on a bus is staged, complete with actors pretending to be witnesses in its aftermath – just three of the 13 startling vignettes that make up Sergei Loznitsa’s blackly comedic, achingly bleak, Donbass.
The writer/director’s fourth fictional feature (he also makes documentaries) offers up loosely interlinked snapshots depicting the ongoing armed conflict in the Donbass region of Ukraine, between its government and the Putin-backed Donetsk People's Republic. The war – which began in 2014 – is so far believed to have claimed 10,000 lives. We witness the ugliness, the brutality, the lies, the corruption and the madness – but mostly we just see ordinary people being chewed up and spat out in a host of different ways by leaders, officials and straight-up chancers on both sides.
Loznitsa’s previous film, A Gentle Creature, was a Kafkaesque nightmare about a Russian woman trying – and failing – to discover why the parcel she had sent her husband in prison had been returned to her. Similar ideas of bureaucracy running rampant and state aggression against the individual are explored here, particularly in a scene where a businessman attempts to get his car back from the army who have taken it. The sequence starts off comedic and farcical, like something out of a Monty Python sketch, before turning more and more sinister, until you realise the man won’t be seeing his motor again – nor possibly his freedom.
Although most of the film’s bleak humour is universal, occasionally you become aware that you’re very much an outsider looking in, seeing things you don’t really understand. There’s a scene featuring a wedding ceremony towards the end, in which a middle-aged man and woman (Ivan and Angela) tie the knot, before a parade of guests – including soldiers – get up on stage to hail their union. The whole thing is like Fellini at his most grotesque – noisy and chaotic with a wonderfully exaggerated performance from Lyudmila Smorodina as the bride. The crowd bellow “Kiss her!” at Ivan over and again but he never does – at least not properly on the lips – while Angela howls with laughter at every turn of events. You wonder if there is some joke going on here that we, in the west, are simply not privy to.
That sense of confusion informs other moments of Donbass, too. There are times when you lose track of which side of the conflict is which. Is the hapless “extermination squad” soldier tied to the lamppost on the government’s side or on the DPR’s? The word “fascist” is thrown around like confetti but, after a while, you lose sense of exactly which side it is being aimed at. Yes, a more thorough understanding of the conflict itself would have almost certainly proved beneficial, but being a little discombobulated is part of the experience and means what is being explored is at least a tiny bit as dizzying and frustrating for the audience as it is for those poor unfortunates caught up in the real-life version.
Belarus-born Loznitsa – who first tackled the deteriorating situation in Ukraine in his excellent 2014 documentary, Maidan – is fairly even handed in his contempt for the leaders of both sides and clearly sees great tragedy in the entire conflict. Sadness and anger permeate Donbass and as he told The Guardian last year: “This is most painful. Two similar close people, Slavic people, have been fighting each other for three years. A lot of relationships are broken.”
One of the things he skewers most effectively about the war is the Orwellian manipulation of reality for propaganda purposes. The power of lies raises its pernicious head as a theme all the way through Donbass, but especially in the scenes that bookend the film. At first, we see actors in make-up, one particular woman (Tamara Yatsenko) being rude to anyone within earshot. She and others are suddenly herded from their trailer through a warren of small buildings before hearing an explosion. It then cuts to the same woman giving an interview to a “TV crew” about how she came running out of a nearby shop when she heard the bang, as the aftermath of a bomb attack (destroyed bus, burnt-out car) smoulders away in the background.
Of course, such disinformation is hardly unique to Ukraine. We live in a post-truth world and the film's shocking final moments return us to the same make-up trailer to ask what happens to those complicit in the lie when they are no longer useful to the liars. Cinematographer Oleg Mutu's camera lingers at length on the climactic scene as the credits roll, Donbass saving its most haunting, affecting image right to the very end.
Just a trailer and a booklet, featuring a new essay about the film by critic Jason Wood.
Donbass is available to buy on Blu-ray now